Super Mario Kart FI

SNES A Day 80: Super Mario Kart


Approximate Release Date: September 1, 1992
Genre: Kart racing
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo

It’s weird to say this, but Super Mario Kart doesn’t feel very much like a Mario Kart game.

It’s hard to nail down exactly why that is. It’s not like the Mario Kart series is known for evolving and changing things up in meaningful ways from iteration to iteration. Mario Kart is Mario Kart, and the basics haven’t changed one bit. Features like drifting and now-classic items like the blue shell or the triple shells are missing in Super Mario Kart and won’t be introduced until Mario Kart 64, but those are far from essential.

The reason Super Mario Kart is unique in the Mario Kart family is two-fold.

First, Nintendo made the go-karts actually control and behave like go-karts. As each new Mario Kart game is released, the karts have become more and more car-like in visual design and how they handle. Super Mario Kart go-karts are squirrely and don’t ever go all that fast, but it’s easy to overlook this because the tracks are so short and compact. No lap will take more than thirty or forty seconds, and every race is five laps. These tracks are simple and if it weren’t for some ramps and other fantastical elements – lava and bottomless pits are probably frowned upon by safety inspectors – most of these levels feel like actual go-kart tracks. It’s hard to say whether this was a technical constraint or a deliberate design choice, but I like it.

The second oddity regarding Super Mario Kart is the importance of jumping. Every Mario Kart game lets you use the shoulder button to do a tiny little hop, but the jump is usually to start a drift around a corner or to do a trick in mid-air. But in this game, jumping is critical in many tracks. Sometimes you’ll need to jump over a stream in the middle of a track or cut a corner by hopping over part of a bottomless pit. There’s even a feather item, which doesn’t appear in any future games, that allows you to get access to shortcuts or leap over the track walls. You can even jump over projectiles if you time it right!

There are some downsides to these, though. Because the tracks in Super Mario Kart are so short, it’s very difficult to come back if you’ve made a mistake early on. If you miss a jump and fall into a pit or some deep water, it takes several seconds for the cloud-riding Lakitu to fish you out and place you back on the track. Those seconds are critical and one mistake can force a restart. It doesn’t help that the items in this game are underpowered compared to later Mario Kart games. The red shell is king in Super Mario Kart, but the rest are situational at best and aren’t very effective at clawing back from behind. Having one set of item boxes per lap in most tracks means better items wouldn’t make too much of a difference.

Super Mario Kart‘s AI is the real problem, though. The computer cheats. Blatantly. Not only in the traditional and expected form of brutal efficiency and rubber-banding but also every computer-controlled character has an infinite number of items to use against the competition. Bowser shoots fireballs, Mario and Luigi have invincibility stars, Toad and Princess Toadstool have poison mushrooms, Yoshi has eggs, Donkey Kong Jr. has banana peels, and Koopa Troopa has green shells. It’s frustrating to have the AI have an entirely different set of rules to compete against you with. They don’t need to pick up coins to increase their top speed, either.

Don’t get me wrong, Super Mario Kart is fantastic and is one of the top racing games for the Super Nintendo. This is the game that introduced the world to multiplayer Battle Mode, after all, so it’s not all bad. The racing is fun, the game is beautiful, and there isn’t a hint of the technical issues that have plagued other SNES racing games so far. This is well worth playing, and the fact it’s so different from other Mario Kart games means it remains fresh and entertaining to those who think they’ve burnt out on the series.

And what do you know? Super Mario Kart was just released on the Wii U Virtual Console last week! Buy it.

Tomorrow: The box art for DinoCity is a beautiful masterpiece.

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